On January 31st, after an overnight flight, Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer at California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Ca., arrived at the gate, at 5:00 am. He was changing planes at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Since it was his port of arrival in the US he was required to clear customs before boarding his connecting flight at 6:40. He had just spent two weeks competing in a solar power car race from the tip of Chile to Santiago . The trip was not work related, but he carried his work phone in case the office wanted to contact him.
Sidd is a Global Entry card holder, which allows him expedited Custom and Boarder Protection passage via a kiosk where his passport and finger prints are scanned to verify identity, and a receipt is printed which allows him to exit without further inspections.
But that didn’t happen this time, his receipt had a bold X printed across it. He presented it to the agent and was promptly taken to a holding area. After about 40 minutes he was taken to to an interview room. The agent ignored Sidd’s bags and ask for his cell phone and pin. Sidd was reluctant, he was carrying his “work” phone. The agent had provided Sidd with a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” when he first entered the room. Sidd relented and gave the agent the pin. He was taken back to the holding area.
After about 30 minutes the agent returned and gave Sidd back his phone, informing him that CBP had run “algorithms” on the device to search for threats. It came up clean, so Bikkannavar was free to go.
Sidd was concerned that his social media had been compromised, so he closed down his accounts. He eventually reactivated his account and posted details of what happened on Facebook.
How It Got Reported
On Feb 12th the online publication The Verge published a story based on the FB post and a phone interview by Loren Grush. The headline “A US-born NASA scientist was detained at the border until he unlocked his phone”
Sidd is not a NASA employee, nor a scientist, he is a software engineer.
The article brought up the fact that it was after the President’s Immigration Executive Order:
“four days after the signing of a sweeping and controversial executive order on travel into the country. The travel ban caused chaos at airports across the United States, as people with visas and green cards found themselves detained, or facing deportation.”
Which had absolutely nothing to do with a US Citizen, with Global Entry returning to US.
Seemingly, Bikkannavar’s reentry into the country should not have raised any flags. Not only is he a natural-born US citizen, but he’s also enrolled in Global Entry — a program through CBP that allows individuals who have undergone background checks to have expedited entry into the country. He hasn’t visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL — a major center at a US federal agency — for 10 years.
Implying that it must have something to do with previously mentioned EO and his non Anglo-Saxon surname.
Bikkannavar noted that the entire interaction with CBP was incredibly professional and friendly, and the officers confirmed everything Bikkannavar had said through his Global Entry background checks. CBP did not respond to a request for comment.
The site SecondNexus.com picked up the story, on the 13th, with the headline “U.S.-BORN SCIENTIST DETAINED, FORCED TO UNLOCK NASA PHONE AT BORDER”
The phone now belongs to NASA not California Institute of Technology.
They finished with:
CBP has not responded to requests for comment. Last, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed complaints against CBP for demanding that Muslim American citizens give up their social media information when they return home from traveling overseas.
Note: The social media questions pre-date the current administration.
Implying that Sidd was stopped because his Indian surname could have been mistaken for Muslim. The only problem is because of his Global Entry background check they would have known this wasn’t true. And Global Entry should have preclude confusing his name with any similar name on a watch list.
Then the clickbait site thewrap.com morphed it into “US-Born Muslim Scientist Detained, Forced to Unlock NASA Phone” with no citation on their source that Sidd was of the Muslim faith. IMHO they jumped to the conclusion from the CAIR reference above.
The Times of India picked up the story today (14th) with the headline; “Indian-origin Nasa scientist detained at US border, phone confiscated”. Some of their story:
A US-born Nasa scientist of Indian-origin was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities on his return to America from a trip to Chile and pressured into unlocking his phone, amid an anxious debate on how far the Trump administration intends to take the “extreme vetting” that it has promised and whether it would be applied to more recent US-citizens of foreign origin.
With his light skin and long brown locks, Bikkannavar does not look very “foreign” (or “Muslim” as some reports erroneously described him; his last name is from the Hubli-Dharwad region in North Karnataka).
… aside from the profiling it ostensibly involved,…
There is growing concern in liberal civil liberties circles over whether such vetting will also be imposed on US citizens and permanent residents of “foreign origin”, with some commentators arguing that Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” is a thinly-disguised attempt to “Make America White Again.”
What I think Happened
I will go out on a limb and speculate that CBP/Global Entry flagged Sidd’s phone because the number had been picked up by one of the three letter agencies motoring some suspicious number in Chile or pinged on a cell tower in a suspicious location being monitored.